During the making of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Still Walking (2012) the film crew were often met with a tricky problem: their director kept disappearing. Like he was in a daydream, Koreeda would wander off the set looking for something unfettered by the artifice of their filmmaking; something unscripted, like a low hanging cherry blossom or a scud of clouds in the sky. Kore-eda’s curiosity on set is emblematic of his entire career which explores a variety of genres, topics, and characters, from the samurai film Hana (2006), to the courtroom procedural The Third Murder (2013), all the way to the story of a blow up doll that comes to life in Air Doll (2009). And then of course there’s his family dramas, Like Father Like Son (2013), I Wish (2016) and so on.
Using documentary techniques, such as the use of non-actors, Kore-eda grounds his body of work within the mores of social realism. His films are threaded together by themes of family and memory, and each includes at least one instance of food. This uncovers his most recognizable trait: a preference for the banal over the fantastical; a preference for the cherry blossoms and clouds that distracted him on the set of Still Walking over the fanciful escapism that cinema is sometimes expected to provide.
Family has been a recurring theme in all of Koreeda’s films, since his first feature Maborosi (1994), and food is used as a narrative tool to press the question: what makes a family?
Non-traditional families feature heavily in all his work and each use food as a way to mediate and communicate with each other.
In Shoplifters (2017), a motley family, made of orphans and runaways, headed by a destitute couple and a lonely grandmother, cook food they’ve stolen from grocery stores. One night, the family offers dinner to a young child left out in the street, Yuri. After it is evidenced that Yuri had been abandoned by her evidently abusive parents, the family decide to take her in. Yuri bonds with her new family by learning how to shoplift from her new older brother and from sitting around the table to share dinner. When Nobuyo, the matriarch of the family, is interrogated by police for kidnapping Yuri, she is told “Children need their [biological] mothers.” Nobuyo responds, “Giving birth automatically makes you a mother?” It is left to the audience to decide if Yuri’s makeshift family of shoplifters were more of a family than her neglectful parents. In Our Little Sister (2016), three sisters living together discover they have an orphaned half-sister and they decide to let her move in with them, bonding together over activities like cooking and eating. Kore-eda even had the four actresses spend time before the shoot to cook and eat a meal together at their house, solidifying their sisterly bond.
The importance of blood relations becomes a point of contention between the different generations in the films. In Still Walking, Ryota’s mother Toshiko, based on Kore-eda’s own mother, expresses her distaste for his new wife, a widow with a child from a previous marriage, referring to her as a “used model.” Aware of his mothers feelings, Ryota struggles to bond with his step-son. In Like Father Like Son, two families discover their children were swapped at birth by a jealous nurse and must decide whether to swap them back. The two families bond with their biological children through eating. How and what they eat also shows us the difference in values and socio-economic status between the two families. The protagonist Ryota is urged by his father to swap the children as “It’s a matter of blood. It’s the same in humans as it is in horses.” However Ryota is conflicted. Like Nobuyo and Ryota, he wonders if a blood-relation is necessary for him to be a father.
In all these films, Koreeda questions preconceptions of family by presenting non-traditional families bond together through cooking family recipes and uniting around the dinner table to eat together despite their lack of biological relation. Because of its necessity for human survival, food becomes one of the visual motifs in which Kore-eda also shows his love for the ineffable beauty in the everyday.
Considered the most ‘Kore-eda’ of all his films, After Life (1999) is set in a world where the dead have three days to choose a memory that will be filmed for them to be relived for eternity. Swathes of recently deceased, many played by non-actors, describe cherished memories to their caseworkers. It shall come as no surprise that many of them include instances of food. A World War II veteran recalls the feeling of eating rice for the first time after being captured by US soldiers. A cheeky old gentleman fondly lists intimate moments he’s had with sex workers, but the most endearing one was of a woman who cooked him rice porridge when he was ill. One woman even recalls surviving the great earthquake of 1923, yet the most memorable part was when her mother made her rice balls.
In each example, their memories are foregrounded by significant, even traumatic events: being captured by enemy soldiers, being struck by an illness and surviving an earthquake, and yet the most crucial detail is the food they ate. The interviews show many of the dead choosing memories that seem at first banal and meaningless, but to them carry a significant importance. Koreeda asks his audience to reflect on the simple everyday moments that make up our lives and garner them with a deeper significance, including the meals we eat everyday.
Using repetition I wanted to show how the food and dining sequences visually rhyme in his films and emulate the same soporific effect they have on the viewer. Similar setups of families sitting around the dinner table repeat throughout Kore-eda’s oeuvre, with a choice gap inbetween for the camera to look into the eating ritual. I placed these shots together; selecting the wide shots first before cutting into mid shots and close ups. There are also several shots of hands busily chopping veggies and stirring pots of curry, so I placed these shots together with a faster tempo using tighter edits before slowing the pace down again to re-enter the slow contemplative pace of his film.
Koreeda’s naturalistic style and his dedication to the simple everyday aspects of life force us to pause and reflect on things we take for granted. His eye for detail beatifies the trees, the clouds and the simple dishes our families cook for us. Sweetcorn fritters, katsu curry, instant ramen, mild flavoured sponge cakes, and cold noodles; the visual palate of Koreeda’s works are as multiplicitous as the genres he has dabbled in and serve as a reminder that sometimes the simplest joys in life are the sweetest.
Tyrie Aspinall is a filmmaker, live visual artist, essayist and all round lover of movies based in Naarm (Melbourne). Since graduating from the Victorian College of the Arts with a BFA (Film and TV) Tyrie has developed multiple short films and freelance projects. Tyrie is drawn to the ineffable beauty of human imperfection; a subject of primal concern in his work.
If he’s not working or writing or re-watching Yojimbo, he’ll probably be out in his shed working on his analog Liquid Light Show. You can reach Tyrie at tyrieaspinall.com